As expected, there were very mixed reviews of President Obama's well-delivered speech at West Point Military Academy to the nation on Tuesday evening on his strategies for dealing with the difficult, complex and increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. As could have been predicted, the primary controversial issues had to do with the number of additional troops to be soon deployed, the high costs associated with the surge, and the timetables for transitioning greater responsibility to the Afghan government and for starting to bring our troops back home.
Somewhat ironically, most Republicans in Congress seem to generally support his plans, while a high percentage of Democrats, especially the liberals on the left, his original main base of supporters, seem to have understandable serious objections and concerns, especially with the longer-term costs, expected casualties, and how long we will end up continuing this war, distracting us from adequate progress on important domestic priorities.
It is quite clear President Obama had no easy options with probable outcomes and consequences we could live with. After lengthy deliberations with his many advisors, he basically agreed with the bulk of advice and recommendations made primarily by Defense Secretary Gates and field commander General McChrystal, and, noteworthy, passing on most of the advice of Vice President Joe Biden. Aside from big concerns with expected overall costs and casualties, here are my major concerns:
1. The very uncertain capability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his administration to do what they have to do in order for Obama's strategies to work successfully, including gaining broad national support for his weak government, eliminating the deep-rooted and endemic corruption at almost all levels, consistently delivering basic services to the population, dealing effectively with the tribal warlords, and managing the badly needed development and performance of his administration and the national military and police forces. With respect to the latter, part of my concern is based on the significant fact that the overall illiteracy rate in the country is a shocking 72%, while in the Afghan Army it is estimated even higher at 90%!
2. A key and appropriate part of Obama's strategy is working, assisting and coordinating closely with the government and large military of neighboring Pakistan to combat the insurgents and help stabilize this country as well. While very necessary, this is an added burden for the U. S. in terms of financial and equipment resources, manpower and logistics management. This represents another big risk, because if we aren't successful in Pakistan, we probably won't be successful in Afghanistan. Many of the bad guys will simply continue to hide out in Pakistan and move back to Afghanistan when we start eventually withdrawing our troops.
3. Since the 30,000 additional U. S. troops and hoped for additional allied mostly NATO country troops will all not have arrived in Afghanistan until June or July next year at the earliest, it is unrealistic that we will know by December next year whether or not we can start withdrawing some of our forces in the summer of 2011, only six or so months later, as planned by Obama. We should reasonably expect that withdrawal of our 98,000 or so troops will very possibly be stretched out over a longer period, with a concomitant adverse impact on our war costs. If we get out too soon, the Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents will probably have little difficulty in building up their forces again with new recruiting.
4. Another concern is with our own apparent capability and effectiveness in monitoring the extent to which our equipment, reconstruction and financial aid is appropriately deployed in Afghanistan. This was especially brought to my attention in an interview I heard on the radio yesterday with retired Major General Arnold Fields, Special Inspector General - Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), whose unit is responsible for much of this. To the interviewer's amazement and my own, General Fields said that only 25-30% of U. S. money for reconstruction ends up being used for the right projects, and roughly 10% is needed for private security. This means that as much as 60-65% of our taxpayer moneys is completely unaccounted for!! That's obviously outrageous and unacceptable.
Considering all the stakes, President Obama took a major risk in deciding on his announced strategies for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at a time when we're still in Iraq, we're concerned with Iran's nuclear build-up, our economy is still in the early stages of recovery from a deep recession, and he's trying to get a highly expensive healthcare reform package approved by the Congress. All Americans should hope he will be at least relatively successful in the Middle East. If his plans don't work, one must expect there's a fair chance that Democrats will lose control of Congress in the elections in 2010 and that he will be fortunate to win reelection in 2012. Much worse, the U. S. will have wasted a great deal of national resources in terms of military casualties and financial assets.